Lessons learned as I start my 10th year of sobriety
Sobriety isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
This month 9 years ago I quit drinking alcohol. for the preceded 20+ years I drank a lot of alcohol. Sometimes people ask “how do you know you’re an alcoholic” and that’s a hard question to answer. Best way to describe it simply is to say one day I realized I wasn’t driving the bus anymore and ll the stops I was making were to serve my need for a drink, nothing else.
Drinking is a pernicious thing. Because it’s legal and socially acceptable and most people don’t think of themselves as alcoholics, when you tell someone you’re an alcoholic there’s always this sense of incredulity, or at least I perceive there to be. It kind of like when you tell someone you have perfect pitch or synesthesia or a vestigial tail. They don’t quite believe you. If they can’t see it, it might not be real. And if they also drink there’s an immediate defensiveness, as though by admitting you have a problem you must also believe they have a problem, or they’re afraid they have a problem. Or they aren’t ready to admit they have a problem. Regardless, you become persona non grata to some. That friend who just lost a loved on and people don’t know how to talk to you. Some people are totally fine and supportive, which is wonderful, but I’ve never gotten past the feeling of being an emotional charity case to them.
And then there’s the guilt. Everyone does stupid stuff they regret when they’re drinking. Alcoholics do stupid stuff all the time. It becomes a way of life. You get drunk, you wake up the next day filled with dread that the phone will ring or an email or Facebook post will arrive, outing your most recent bad behavior. I think that’s why one of the 12 steps is to make amends to the people you’ve wronged. I never worked the steps. I went to AA meetings for the first 6 months or so, but I never sought out a sponsor and never really bought in. The sharing was helpful, but once the initial adjustment period wore off I started to make myself busy. We adopted our son. I ran for office. I made BIG changes. I did all the things they tell you not to do in AA. That’s probably why I didn’t buy in. I still had enough grandiosity in me to think I could do it on my own.
That’s one thing most people probably don’t associate with addicts, the delusions of grandeur, the Superman/woman complex. In my experience, it’s pretty much a universal: when you’re an addict you think you’re stronger than the drug. You think the drug is your jet fuel. I know I thought I was better when I was a drunk. It was my happy pill. It allowed me to be what I couldn’t be when I was sober: outgoing, brash, loud, confident, brilliant. And that I could handle the drinking if it meant I had the superpowers I believed I did when I was drinking.
The alcoholic has to mourn the death of that version of themselves. And the mourning period seems to know no end. I still feel I am ‘less than’ as a sober person. My wings have been clipped. I am a barnyard stallion past the age to be put out to stud. When you stop drinking that feeling of superiority doesn’t stop right away. I held onto it for a long time. I probably still hold onto it to this day. How much of it is delusion and how much is my innate creativity and desire to share? That’s a gordian knot no blade has yet sliced. In AA they talk about making your life “right-sized” and I always liked that idea. The formula for “right-sized” has eluded me most of the time, though. I imagine this quiet life that somehow owns its ambitions as opposed to the other way around, but here in my 50th year I haven’t found that balance.
There’s also the concept of the “pink cloud” for newly sober people. After you’re sober for a while and your brain chemistry starts to right itself many addicts experience this kind of euphoric newness, like they’re seeing the world for the first time and its awesome. Ultimately, the pink cloud is a mirage, but a powerful one. I wonder if it fuels the addict on to recovery. I never experienced a pink cloud moment. In fact, everything about sobriety has been a dulled experience. There are no celebrations worth having. I’ve never learned to be happy without the addition of alcohol.
While I’m glad I quit drinking there have been many unforeseen consequences. A lot of people drink to self medicate. I did. Since I quit drinking all the stuff I masked with it has become much more problematic. I take several medications for anxiety and depression now. I’ve tried a bunch and now I’m on a cocktail that evens everything out, but it doesn’t make things better. It makes the day manageable, sort of like going to an office job you know you’ll never get out of.
I also can’t stand to be around people who drink, even the smallest bit. Everyone suffers trauma in their lives and drinking was one of my traumas. Quitting drinking was one, too. It’s not that I judge people who drink or think less of them. In fact, it’s the opposite. I envy them. I envy the ability to have a beer or two, or a glass of wine in the evening and not have that be the warm up to the dozen beers yet to come. I’d give almost anything to be able to sit and watch a football game and have a couple beers. But day drinking leads to night drinking and when you get that kind of head start on the nightlife, everything is guaranteed to go sideways.
Nine years into my sobriety I’m not happier. I’m not healthier. I haven’t found peace. And I haven’t filled the gap that my drinking life left. I haven’t been more creative, I haven’t been more productive and I haven’t made up for the selfishness I inflicted on those I love when I was drinking.
Overcoming addiction is supposed to be a “hero’s journey” kind of story. You face the faceless beast and vanquish it. But that hasn’t been my experience. I know real progress takes real work and I think I have been doing that work. Maybe I need to work harder. Or maybe I need to let go. Regardless, as I move into my tenth year of sobriety I have mixed emotions. I know I would have lost everything I love if I continued to drink, but in not drinking I sometimes wonder if I haven’t lost more.